As more family members pass on, I feel the loss of their stories. Life history is a valuable family asset. We think we’ll remember the tales we heard as children, but we often don’t. It’s like a game of telephone tag – everybody heard a different version. Who’s in this picture? What year was that? Where did they live? Whatever happened to him? Some questions never get answered.
I wish I had realized that family history is a perishable commodity. It disappears with time, as memories fade, and as loved ones pass on. I wish I had known that the most important aspect of family history is preserving a record of the present for the future.
– Guy Black
If you’ve seen the film “Coco,” you were reminded that the memories of ancestors keep them with us. Documentation keeps those memories from fading.
Writing a memoir may sound like way too much work. It’s best to start with an outline and answer some basic questions. If you never got any further, at least that would be something for your great-great-grandchildren to read. For those who want to get serious about writing, Denis Ledoux’s book, Turning Memories Into Memoirs, goes deep into the process.
I created a basic outline in a Word document to get you started. Click the link to download it and customize it for your life story. A blank page is a difficult starting point.
Developing a writing habit
- Set a standing appointment to write for 30 minutes a day or whatever time you wish.
- Keep a notebook nearby to jot down memories as they occur
- If you’re using paper, make sure to digitize everything to prevent losing it all. As a minimum, take a photo of each page with your phone and back it up to the cloud.
Ali Luke, a blogger at Aliventures, wrote a recent article with ideas to make the most of your writing time. Suggestions include writing at your best time of day, not allowing other people to interrupt you, and setting reachable targets. “Getting away from all the distractions of family, chores, TV, and so on can be surprisingly helpful (and some writers find it much easier to get into “working mood” in a library or coffee shop),” she added.
I just received The Memoir Workbook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Help You Brainstorm, Organize, and Write Your Unique Story by C.S. Larkin. It’s filled with practical advice and is a workbook with questions to complete as you go along. “Watch out that your memoir isn’t a channel for venting your anger or hurt at someone,” he advises.
Alternatives to the written word
You can use your phone to make a personal documentary. A series of short videos are very easy to make using photos and your narration.
- Start with an outline or you’ll find yourself starting over again (and again)
- Gather photos and videos to highlight different times
- Use an external microphone to get better sound
- Video with natural light on your face, if possible
- Get a ring light on a phone tripod for better lighting
- Use a phone tripod to keep it steady on a table
- Pause the video to add photos
- Look for photos of your school, town, house or workplace online.
- Another method is interviews with younger family members. Provide a list of questions for the child or grandchild to ask and record the conversation.
- An elaborate scrapbook may tell your story very effectively.
What do I do with my life story?
- Keep a copy in a safe place and in various formats.
- Give copies to family members.
- Make it available online with a link, such as Google Drive, OneDrive, or Dropbox
You may want to keep it to yourself. Perhaps your future self will enjoy reminiscing. If heaven forbid, you were to develop dementia, it could be a blessing. Caregivers don’t know about the people they work with unless someone tells their stories. One family I knew made a detailed photo book about the family house before it was sold. The couple looked at the book whenever they were reminiscing about their home for many years.
Archiving photos and video
We bought our first video camera in 1985 so the first VHS tapes are 33 years old now. Digitizing and organizing photos and recordings has never been as important with natural disasters around every corner. If you don’t have a working VCR, having them professionally digitized is the best idea. We recently purchased this capture device with software and it worked great with our old VCR.
What not to do
Don’t dwell on mistakes and sadness unless you are writing therapeutically. Thinking about the past brings up painful memories for everyone. Choose what you want to do with these thoughts. Are you writing for your future family or a public autobiography? Set a clear goal for your memoir.
Don’t get upset when family members don’t read your life story. They think they already know your story but may be interested later. I’ve written several short life stories from interviews with some very old adults. After they passed, the family asked me for copies and appreciated the work.